Tag Archives: grief

Authors of ’18 Interviews: Jennifer Haupt

Hello and welcome to my blog series dedicated to author interviews for 2018 debut authors! This has been started as a way to support some of my fellow ‘debutantes’ of 2018. Some of the genres may be a little outside while I usually write/talk about here, but each of these I share struck my interest in one way or another.

(See past author interviews at the end of this post!)

Here’s another literary fiction for you — and another one I can’t wait to read. This looks heartwrenching and fascinating!

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A Conversation with Jennifer Haupt, Author of In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills

Jennifer Haupt’s moving debut novel, In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills, is a multi-cultural story deftly weaves together the journeys of three women from vastly diverse backgrounds searching for personal peace in post-genocide Rwanda. At the heart of this novel that Bustle.com named as one of 19 debut novels to watch for in 2018 is the search for family, and the discovery of grace when there can be no forgiveness.

 

Q: Why did you go to Rwanda in 2007?

A: The short answer is that I was a reporter exploring the connection between grief and forgiveness. I went there to interview genocide survivors. I also went to interview humanitarian aid workers about why they were drawn to this tiny country still grieving a decade after the 1994 genocide.

I had an handful of assignments for magazines, writing about humanitarian efforts and they all fell through for one reason or another. That’s when I decided to hire a driver and go into the 10,000 hills to visit the small churches and schools with bloodstains on the walls and skulls of anonymous victims stacked on shelves. I wanted to trace the steps of the genocide and talk with the genocide survivors, mostly women, who were guides at these rarely visited memorials.

 

Q: What did you find in Rwanda that was surprising?

A: I didn’t even realize until I was in Rwanda that I needed to address my own grief for my sister who died when I was age two. It was forbidden to speak of Susie in our household; that’s how my parents dealt with their grief and I respect that. In Rwanda, it felt safe to grieve for the first time. My grief was miniscule compared with the genocide survivors. And yet, we shared a powerful mixture of emotions — compassion, sorrow, longing — that crossed the boundaries of race and culture.

What struck me was that many of the aid workers I interviewed were also grieving over the loss of loved ones. They came to Rwanda as a way of reaching out to help others, and also to heal their own souls. Most of the people I spoke with, no matter if they were Rwandan, American, European, were, in some way, grieving. I had always thought the universal commonality that connected all of us was love, but I learned in Rwanda that grief is an equally strong bond. Grief and love form the bridge that connects us all.

 

Q: How did your Jewish background effect you?

A: Fifteen years before I went to Rwanda, I visited the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial site in Germany. The site is an impressive museum with photo exhibits and artifacts. The former prison barracks and crematorium where some of my relatives may have been imprisoned and murdered were now scrubbed clean. I went to Dachau expecting to feel sorrow, maybe anger, but instead I felt a disturbing emptiness. Nothing.

During the two weeks I spent traveling in the ten thousand hills of Rwanda, I couldn’t help but think of my visit to Dachau. Thousands of people visit Dachau each year; we Jew vow to remember the atrocities that happened there. Never again. It struck me that I was nearly always the only visitor at the dozens of tiny bloodstained memorials I visited. There was always a guide, usually a woman, a lone Tutsi survivor whose family members were murdered at the church or school.

I remember at one church, I was met by a woman named Julia, in her mid-forties, around my age at the time. She had survived by laying on the floor among the dead bodies. Now, she gave tours so that no one would forget. I talked with Julia about her family members and friends who had been murdered here. We cried together; my tears were, in part, for my relatives and members of my tribe who had been murdered during the holocaust. I experienced a powerful connection with this stranger who lived halfway around the world from me, in a culture so different than mine, through both love and grief. I wanted to share that experience with others through the characters in my novel.

 

Q: Why did you write this novel, instead of a memoir about your time in Rwanda?

A: Amahoro is a Kinyarwanda greeting that translates literally to peace, but means so much more when exchanged between Hutus and Tutsis since the genocide. It’s a shared desire for grace when there can be no forgiveness. It’s an acknowledgement of shared pain, an apology, a quest for reconciliation. I wanted to be the conduit for telling the stories of amahoro that I had heard in Rwanda, from Tutsis and Hutus. I wanted to explore more deeply the meaning of amahoro, from many different world views. I wanted to excavate my own grief more fully and, perhaps, find my own vision of amahoro. I could only do all of that, I felt, as a novelist.

 

Q: Why did you choose to tell this story through the eyes of three women of different ages and cultural backgrounds?

A: I wanted to offer Westerners a window into a very different world, and to do that I started with an American protagonist leaving everything she knows to try and find amahoro. Rachel Shepherd is searching for her father, Henry, in Rwanda. She is also searching for the piece of her heart that he took when he left her twenty years earlier. The piece that knows how to love: like a child, like a wife, like a mother.

I also wanted to connect the African-American civil rights struggle with the struggle for civil rights of the Tutsis in Rwanda. That’s where Lillian comes from. Once I decided that she and Henry Shepherd had an ill-fated interracial love affair during the late 1960s in Atlanta, their story took on a life of it’s own. Lillian is on equal footing with Rachel as a central character in this novel.

Originally, this was just Rachel and Lillian’s journey: The intertwining stories of two women searching for the man they both love. Two women trying to piece together a family. I didn’t add Nadine’s story until eight years after I started writing this novel. She’s based on a 19-year-old woman I met in Rwanda who had left after the genocide and was returning for the trial of a Hutu man, a former neighbor, who she had seen shoot her mother and sister.

Nadine is a fusion of this woman’s story as well as other stories I heard in Rwanda — and then, of course, my imagination. She’s the lynch-pin that hold together the stories of Lillian, Henry, Rachel, and Rachel’s love interest in Rwanda, an American doctor running from his past who has become like an older brother to Nadine.

 

Q: Is this a political story about the genocide?

A: No, this is a story that is set against the backdrop of pre-genocide, the genocide, and then after the genocide. I conducted a lot of research about Rwandan history but I don’t claim to be an expert on the country’s politics or tumultuous past. I do present some background about the genocide, which is factual, but this is historical fiction. The story is about the experiences of the characters during this time in history.

 

About the Author

Jennifer Haupt has been a journalist for more than 25 years. Her essays and articles have been published in O, The Oprah Magazine, The Rumpus, Psychology Today, Travel & Leisure, The Seattle Times, Spirituality & Health, and many other publications. Her well-read Psychology Today blog, One True Thing, is a collection of essays and interviews with bestselling authors. In the Shadow of Ten Thousand Hills is her first novel. She lives in Seattle with her husband, two sons and Duck Toller.

 

For more information about Jennifer Haupt and In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills please visit www.jenniferhaupt.com.

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Previous author interviews:

Pamela Kopfler – BETTER DEAD

Anna Quinn – THE NIGHT CHILD

Clarissa Harwood — IMPOSSIBLE SAINTS

Negeen Papehn — FORBIDDEN BY FAITH

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Death and Decay

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One of my goats, Beltaine, died last Wednesday. It was pretty sudden, and the circumstances are a little bizarre. The vet has sent off tissue samples to get more answers and information. But needless to say I’ve been hurting, and struggling a lot. My goats are my babies; I help them come into the world, and it’s my responsibility to care for them and keep them safe. When one dies… it shatters a piece of me.

That’s not to say I don’t heal or get better, but that doesn’t take away from the fact.

Now, usually, in heartbreak, I can’t write. I’ve never really been able to write in the depths of depression or hurt. If I need to escape, I spend that time reading or watching TV.

Something different happened last Wednesday as I dug a grave for Beltaine. I was thrown into a scene, a picture that had been vague for a while suddenly crystal clear. It was vivid in an undeniable way.

Two things, actually, came from digging her grave. One of them is for another blog post and will take some time. But the second, I wanted to share with you. Because the minute I came home from burying Beltaine I started to write.

I never write when I’m hurting.

I started writing about decay and yanking someone back from the brink of death. I wrote about what I couldn’t do in real life: saving a loved one when all hope was lost. The segment below is actually part of a bigger series, the series debuting next year.

I apologize for it’s unpolished nature; it’s a little jolting, the voice isn’t where I want it, and it’s pretty raw. The star of this scene won’t be present until Book One, after the prequel, so maybe this is a little premature.

But he talked as I unearthed the final resting place for one of my beloved kids, and I wanted to share.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Humans can smell the decay of a body a few hours after death. It’s sweet and repugnant all at once, candy-sticky and gorge-inspiring. This sense of smell works a little differently for my family: we can smell the decay of a dying person before actual death. See, the human body is equipped with everything it needs to live and die when it’s born – including the bacteria that that takes over at death, turning body to fertilizer. In a human lifetime there’s a constant battle between bacteria trying to keep the body alive, and the bacteria trying to decompose the body. It jumps at any chance to try. And when someone is dying, the bacteria begins its process. We can smell it.

So when the smell of death hit me, as my brother and I frantically bound the gaping holes on the neck, thigh, wrist of the girl bleeding out on the cold concrete floor – panic seized my chest.

Panic. What a funny thing. A sensation I hadn’t felt in years, perhaps decades. It froze me where I crouched, my movements stopped in denial. It flooded my head and made me stupid.

Her heartbeat – it changed. Stuttering. The tune of death’s march. The blood loss was critical, dangerous even in normal circumstances, with access to healing or medical care.

It was 20 minutes to the nearest hospital. This abandoned building was far from any civilization. Even with my speed, it was too far. I’d be fooling myself if I thought I could make it with her injuries. Panic opened its jaws wider.

There was nothing here. I had no blood, no medicine, no doctors, in the middle of nowhere. All I knew was how to kill. I’d gotten to her, and it was too late. She was going to die. I’d seen this so many times. They all died so easily… they all just died.

Twin spikes of grief drove up through my chest and my brother’s and rolled over us like a black wave. Our minds, ever connected, amplified it until I felt like I was drowning. It was inevitable: they all died, ripping from the world, bright lights extinguished I barely had the chance to see.

My eyes burned.

Her end was going to break me. She wasn’t just a bright life in the world; she was an incandescent sun that made the world less weary, that made the centuries feel lighter. She made me feel like living, instead of decaying in my own mind as death was a gift I would never experience. I’d barely had the chance to know her, I’d barely scratched the surface of who she was, and she was being taken from me.

She stopped breathing. Silence stretched. Pain ripped my chest open; my brother’s weary acceptance felt like a hit –

NO. NO. NO, DAMN IT.

Rage gave me breath, gave me clarity. I lunged onto my knees and hovered over her, tilting her head back as I covered her mouth with mine and breathed into her lungs. Her chest expanded with what I’d forced into it. Her heart was still beating; I could supply the oxygen.

I didn’t have the ability to speak so I ordered my brother through our link: Get Druindar. If you can’t find him, anyone who knows what to do. And blood. As much as you can.

Brother… he began.

I violently shook off his hand when he placed it on my shoulder. I was one of the most powerful creatures on the planet goddamn it – I was going to save this girl’s life. She was mine to protect, she was mine. It was going to be different this time. I was changing the story. I would not live without her. I refused.

I lifted my head to suck in air, immediately forcing it into her lungs. What could I use in this building? – this stinking lair of the strigoi. There was nothing here I knew, and no one I could ask, because I’d already killed them all in my pursuit of getting to her. She needed a transfusion. And more than that; her body needed more than just blood. My brother had to be fast, and I had to keep her alive.

You’re not moving, I snarled at him.

“Nothing will be here in time.”

My mouth broke from hers for a second. “I’ll keep her alive!”

Druindar was a goddamn magic healer – I should have made him come with me. I should have forced him to come to this place where I knew she was being sucked on. I wasn’t used to interacting this closely with humans, their fragility. I was a fool. I had to prepare better; no more fucking around.

Regan was dialing someone on his phone: he was helping. Grudgingly, afraid he was buying into my desperation and just delaying the inevitable, he was helping me. Good.

She needed blood and medical attention.

Blood and magic, if at all possible.

Blood and magic.

Blood magic.

I froze for a second. No. It would never be that easy. It couldn’t. My teeth clenched. In all probability it wouldn’t even work; at the very least it wouldn’t work how it was supposed to. But the idea was burrowing into my brain like a parasite. There was no way my shitty existence would make it that simple, but intent, intent changed all kinds of magic –

Her heart skipped… stuttered… all thoughts wiped from my head.

BAM. Her heart slammed hard, then raced, frantically trying to keep her flesh alive when it didn’t have the liquid nor the oxygen to provide. The relief her heart hadn’t stopped tasted like bile.

No more options. This was it.

Blood magic.

I had her in my arms in a second, her body limp weight in my arms, tucking her head between my shoulder and my cheek. She smelled like death and decay and her. Haste was necessary; I couldn’t breathe for her while I held her, and I wasn’t risking brain damage. Regan startled, staring at me. I’d shut down our link without realizing it; he didn’t have access to my head as I raced down the dark concrete hall. That was probably good, because my idea was reckless and irresponsible and born of panic, and he’d try to talk me out of it.

I’d seen a blood collection room when we’d stormed this godforsaken hole, it should have what I needed.

My family – we had a lot of magic. An insane amount of magic. The only problem was we couldn’t actually use it. We can only use it as physical fuel. To do things like make us strong, or fast, or indestructible. But we can’t wield magic.

But there was a lot of magic in our blood.

There — the room. The door was hanging off the one hinge, almost obliterated from when I’d come through it the first time. Regan was on my heels as I shouldered open the remains of the door, lying her on the metal table in the center of the room. It was the worst kind of blasphemy that I laid her on a place where countless people had been drained of their life. But I had no time for sentiment. I held her jaw and felt her chest expand as I breathed for her again. 76 seconds she’d been without. Within safe limits.

“You’re not turning her into a strigoi, are you?” my brother asked with cautious humor. He was being deliberately calm. I could hear him assessing my mental state, trying to figure out how far gone I was.

His statement didn’t deserve the dignity of a response.

Find a blood collection unit.

He stiffened as he realized my intent. Or maybe he’d read it off of me. Arguments brewed in his head – all the ones I’d been thinking already; what we were, what it meant, that it could just kill her – and then they fell away as he was ripping open doors of cabinets, throwing things off counters as he searched. He thought I was delusional and was going to suffer even more at the end of all of this; I didn’t give a rat’s magical butt hair about his opinion.

He barked out a laugh.

Her heart stuttered…

We both froze. My hearing amplified as I listened, turning the small sounds in the room nearly deafening.

THWUP… thwup-thwup… THWUP… thwup …

Death was here.

REGAN!

He blurred as he moved, abruptly at my side. Our thoughts were in tandem; I tilted my head back as he jabbed smoothly, the needle sliding into my jugular. He didn’t need to be careful; dragon curses knew it wouldn’t hurt me. He’d found one with a giant syringe, meant to draw out a lot of blood at once.

Fucking bloodsuckers.

I caught glimpses of images from Regan: my blood sliding into the clear tube thickly, gleaming red. It’d seen a lot of blood. I’d seen a lot of my own blood. I’d never cared so much about it before.

Anxiety hit in waves. This could kill her. She could have an allergic reaction and her body could fight to kill itself. For all intents and purposes my brother and I had O- blood, not that our blood could really be put into a human category. From studying ourselves we knew it was bizarrely without markers or distinguishing traits, exceptionally ‘clean.’ And filled with magic. Magic that could turn on her. Or simply decay in her veins.

The wait was agonizing. Her heartbeat was fading, the counting of final remaining numbers, no surety which would be the last. Nausea twisted my gut, another novel sensation I hadn’t felt in decades. It seemed to take eons for him to fill the giant syringe with dark thick liquid from my body.

Then it was full. I was over her head, breathing through her blue lips. It had been 32 seconds for her without air.

Regan took her arm. There was a large vein in the elbow that was most accessible for transfusions and often used in the field; he had to be incredibly careful not to blow the vein.

“Are you sure?” Regan murmured.

Do it, damn it.

His focus sharpened, his fingers moving along her elbow as he found and palpitated the vein. Then he lifted the needle – which suddenly looked huge, despite Regan mentally snapping that it was the right size – and gently slid it into her vein. His thumb moved to the plunger and he squeezed.

With as long as I had lived, with everything I’d experienced, most everything becomes monotonous. There were few events that really changed anything, after you experience change over the span of centuries.

But this had the potential to change everything. None of us had ever done something like this before. We’d never given bits of ourselves to another person, only inanimate things, in tests. It was unprecedented in my family.

Maybe that would be why it worked.

Regan continued to press down glacially slow. I knew it was important, so he didn’t blow out her vein, but I had to strangle panic and impatience all the same. My heart hammed inside my chest, and in bizarre echoes it seemed connected to my blood sliding into her veins. It felt like a part of my soul went with it. I was still breathing for her, hyperaware of her heartbeat, her skin, the sounds her body made as organs fought against shock.

I hadn’t spoken Gaelic in decades, yet mother’s prayer sprang so easily to mind, muttered against her lips, it was like I’d been saying it every day. I almost wanted to laugh at the childish reaction; Regan definitely did.

Despite the cheesiness… a prickle across my skin made it serious. Intention changed magic.

It had to be enough.

The first syringe was empty, into her veins. She wasn’t convulsing, her skin wasn’t reacting… her body had to be accepting it. Please, of all dragon’s mercy, let her be accepting it.

My brother stabbed me in the neck again, and we repeated the process. Heaviness filled the air, stuck to the walls, weighed down the pathetic light in the room. This had to work. My blood was powerful. I was giving it to her to save her life. Magic was all about intent. It had to work…

We did it again. And again. Regan was calculating in the back of his head, making sure we didn’t give her too much, or too fast. We fell into a rhythm, a pattern, fulfilling a set of actions that would be completed over and over without deviation from perfection. Only when something changed would our actions change; we were machines, razor focused to our tasks.

She coughed.

I reared back. She stilled again.

Silence stretched.

She coughed again, and sucked in a breath, her lungs expanding on her own, her body jerking, her face screwing up. For a horrifying second it looked like death spasms.

But her heart was beating. Beating stronger, more surely; incorporating a part of myself into her system, using it to revive her. I could hear the shifts in her body, shock still crashing through her, death battling against her body’s natural rhythms.

I’d been frozen for several seconds now, but I couldn’t seem to make myself move. I just kept measuring her breaths as they filled her chest, over and over, almost unable to believe it. Regan finished the syringe and turned to me for more blood – she still needed more – his expression blank even as I felt his cautious relief through our link. There was so much more to be done; transportation to a hospital, monitoring her for adverse reactions to my blood, getting every damn healer and doctor I knew to look over her, preventing retaliation against her for what I’d done to find her. But I’d done it. I’d yanked her back from the brink of death.

“She needs another half-pint of blood before we try to move her,” Regan said.

I nodded. My hands lifted from her head, where they’d been to hold her in the correct position for resuscitation. I hesitated, then lowered my hands to her hair, stroking it back from gently her face. She suddenly felt fragile as glass, I wasn’t sure if I should be allowed to touch her.

It took me a few moments to register, having been so focused on the mechanics of moving oxygen from my lungs to hers to really breathe or recognize air.

The smell of death no longer hung around her.